I was reading a blog written by a young, literate and outspoken Philadelphian last night, and discovered a fascinating writer/performer, Joanna Newsom, and her song, "Peach, Plum, Pear." (For those who take pains to avoid clicking links containing strong language, here is a direct link to the YouTube video). "lef"'s blog is, as most compelling blogs are, a bright and wide window into another person's world, and she doesn't pull her punches expressing herself).
At first I wasn’t sure if it might be a joke video. She’s pixie-ish, earnest and playing the harp, with let’s just say an unusual singing voice. But within 30 seconds I got that she was for real, and had something compelling going on. She does things with that harp I didn’t think were possible, the words were striking and she was deeply committed to her performance and her music.
I looked up the lyrics on songmeanings.net to get a better sense of them, and they were intriguing, the sort of collage lyric that fascinates me when it’s done right. There were all sorts of interpretations going on, but I noticed that most people tried to “figure it out” from the beginning of the song, in a linear way.
But it struck me that the title was barely used in the song. There’s no chorus, no refrain, there’s just a continuous stream of thought, culminating in the title. And that is never an accident. The title is the conclusion, the meaning and saving it until the very end is a tell that it is the keystone to the song.
It’s obvious the song is about shyness, and self-doubt, some relationship gone wrong or questioned, and some of the songmeanings posters circled around the fruits as metaphors for a woman’s self-image. And I think that’s exactly right, though it’s the declension itself that the song is about. A young woman is often described as a “peach,” new and bright, with smatterings of “peach fuzz” designating youth; a “plum” is a great prize, something special, a woman in the full, ripe bloom; and as women age, and gravity takes over, the phrase “pear-shaped” comes into play.
So those three little words, all fruits, all beginning with ‘p,’ are a concise progression. Soft and downy youth, ripe and mature womanhood, body-changing age. Or “golden turned to gray” as the song says. Peach, plum, pear.
And from that idea the rest of the song unravels (or ravels). It ties into the grocery store at the beginning, and brings together all the insecurities spoken of, in many ways, during the song. The song “makes sense” – the best of these songs, impenetrable at first, becomes wonderful to walk in after a little reflection. And I’m in love with the worlds of meaning distilled in those three fruits.
As a writer, I try to intuit another writer’s process, how s/he got from one thought to another. I can almost imagine her in the fruit section of a grocery store having this ‘pear-shaped’ thought, making the connection in her mind, calculating the phrase and reflecting on her life, her changing body, and imagining the start of a relationship, right there, where she was standing. It’s the sort of crystallized thought we try to put in our notebooks when it happens, the thought that becomes the greater song, and the thought that a day later, hours later, you won’t remember if it’s not written.
I’m going to look up more of Joanna Newsom's work, and see what else she’s written for me.